Women on the Big Screen: Elad Lassry Takes on the High Line Billboard

When the artist Elad Lassry was asked to design an image for the billboard that overlooks the High Line park,

Elad Lassry, ‘Women (065, 055),’ 2012. (Courtesy the artist and High Line Art)

When the artist Elad Lassry was asked to design an image for the billboard that overlooks the High Line park, he had to put aside some of his usual working methods. “I don’t normally do commissions,” he told The Observer over the phone from his Los Angeles studio, “or make work for a specific occasion.” But the invitation also presented an issue of scale. Normally, Mr. Lassry’s photographs are roughly 11 x 14 inches, proportions derived from a conventional headshot. Even when he presents his short films, as he did for his solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 2009, he projects them at roughly the same headshot size. The High Line billboard, on the other hand, is 75 x 25 feet, wider than the average IMAX screen.

“It’s very cinematic,” said Cecilia Alemani, director and curator of High Line Art, who has been programming a series of site-specific, commissioned artworks on the billboard—“challenging interventions,” she likes to call them—since she started her job last October. Mr. Lassry’s, which will be unveiled on Aug. 1, is the fifth in the series, which has included work by John Baldessari, Anne Collier, David Shrigley and Maurizio Cattelan. Mr. Lassry’s, however, may be the most billboard-like billboard, in that he actually has something to advertise, an upcoming exhibition and performance, “Untitled (Presence),” that opens in September at the nearby alternative space The Kitchen.

Which isn’t to say his image is all that accessible. Two women in matching shirts look out through apertures in a bright green wall. An ambiguous picture that blends the languages of advertising, portrait photography, fashion and fine art, it is not dissimilar to Mr. Lassry’s other pieces—oddly staged looking photographs of animals, objects and humans that suggest confusing narratives and are presented against brightly colored monochromatic backgrounds. He makes special frames that match the dominant color in the images and lend each picture a sculptural aspect. The green-framed Lipstick (2009) shows a set of lipsticks on green pedestals against a green backdrop. Guinevere, from the same year, is a nude man, posed awkwardly with a couple of basketballs while looking away from the camera. It evokes a painting by Ingres as much as it does an ad for Reebok.

Mr. Lassry said the consistent small scale of his photographic work serves a specific function: “I’m trying to create democracy between different economies.” His interest in scale, in particular the conventional headshot size, grew out of practical considerations when he was still a student at CalArts. “They needed to be small enough so you could put them in your bag, but big enough so you could see the mistakes on the print,” he told Frieze magazine last year. He liked the structure that the size gave his work and used it as a framing device (like the painted frames) to examine the sculptural qualities and “objecthood” of pictures—a practice he likened to the way Structuralist filmmakers determine the length of their films by the length of commercially available film stock. And it’s just one of a number of framing devices that would come to shape Mr. Lassry’s work and help him explore the tension between image and object. He wants you to see any given artwork by him as an object that “reveals itself as an image.”

For his most recent exhibition, which ended last month at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, he presented found images, like a set of early headshots of the actor Anthony Perkins smiling while holding an armful of milk and juice cartons, as well as a set of charcoal drawings presented alongside small sculptures that looked like bed frames. He built special walls in the gallery that had apertures in them, creating sightlines to specific pieces. Before the opening in March, Mr. Lassry presented a theatrical performance in an off-site theater with dancers from the New York City Ballet in which he choreographed movements based on fragments from iconic dance works.

The Kitchen show will pick up where the L.A. show left off, presenting a new 30-minute performance in conjunction with an exhibition. The billboard, with its image of women peeking through apertures like the ones in the walls at Kordansky, will serve as a kind of link between the two shows.

“When I started working on the Kitchen show,” Mr. Lassry said, “I decided I’d have a few images that would resemble my work in terms of aesthetics but would not be available or exist as artworks.” To that end, he placed an ad in Artforum’s summer issue, an enigmatic collage-like composition in which a picture of a framed portrait of the same two women is shown alongside some anatomical drawings of eyes that he found in medical manuals. A caption read, merely, “The Kitchen.”

But when the billboard project came along, he found that it filled a similar purpose. The billboard, he said, maintains “the accuracy” of his other work. Like the headshot-size photographs, it also presents a format familiar to viewers.

He takes the same structuralist approach to dance, and the Kitchen performance will “look at the theater as a framing device,” said Stuart Krimko, director of the artist’s L.A. gallery, David Kordansky. “The stage itself, the ticketing, the seating, are being used as a way of framing information, what we expect whether visually, perceptually, or physically in terms of experiencing visual information within the constructs of a theater.”

As a kind of advertisement, or preview, for that performance, the billboard effectively frames it. “The way the billboard behaves, with images entwined with our perception of objects and events, totally fits with how Elad is thinking of performance,” said Kitchen director Tim Griffin. He added that the project is also “a really great moment of synchronicity between the High Line and The Kitchen.”

The High Line park, still a novelty, gets a lot of visitors—more than 500,000 a month during the summer—meaning that many more people are likely to see Mr. Lassry’s billboard than have seen any single one of his shows. How they react remains to be seen. Some of the billboards, Ms. Alemani said, have been big hits with High Line visitors. Earlier this year, many posed in front of Mr. Baldessari’s image of a $100,000 bill, pretending they were holding it, while friends snapped photos.

“I do think it’s very irritating,” said Mr. Lassry about his billboard image. “But it’s more a duration of irritation. It takes a bit of time, instead of confronting you right away. Once you spend time … you start thinking that [the women] are sitting there to be looked at.”

His billboard will irritate to make a point. “When are you looking at a subject and when is a subject looking back at you?” he mused. “We’re being experienced by others. That becomes philosophical.”


Correction: July 18, 2012: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that the dance performance preceding Mr. Lassry’s show at David Kordansky Gallery occurred in the gallery. It occurred at an off-site theater. Women on the Big Screen: Elad Lassry Takes on the High Line Billboard